Sunday, December 23, 2012

Novel Publication!

(Photo by Emma Lynch, BBC)

Getting used to winter in Fukui has been a challenge for me. Much of this comes from my stubbornness—a refusal to pay Japanese prices for winter clothes, and a refusal, too, to purchase my first-ever pair of snowboots just to walk to and from the university where I teach. As I’m now in Santa Barbara for the holidays, I hope to buy all I need here for the long winter season. Thank god my shipment of Trung Nguyen coffee arrived in California safely, so at least I’ve got a few kilos of black gold to help me survive.

But my big news is that I found a publisher for my novel, Lotusland. Although the publication date is scheduled for two years down the road, it’s a big relief and an even bigger source of happiness that Lotusland will eventually reach a wide audience. The publisher, Guernica Editions, is one that I respect very much. I couldn’t be happier with this development. The feeling of validation is extremely rewarding.

What this means in practical terms is that over the next two years I’ll have much to do in preparation for my novel’s publication. I’ll need to figure out how I want to promote the novel and where—not only in North America, but also in Europe, Asia, and Australia. A book tour sounds daunting—public speaking is not my forte—but I’ll need to plan on something like that as well. It will be interesting to see if I can remain in Fukui, or even in Japan, when it comes time to promote my work.

I hope, too, that this will bring me back to a more productive writing routine. I’m working on a re-write of my first novel, which is set in Vietnam and Cambodia, and hoping to have it finished before Lotusland comes out.

What this means for my blog is uncertain—I’ve been too busy with work and five major moves over the last 18 months to blog regularly—but hopefully I can get back to it soon.

For anyone reading this––Happy Holidays!

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Saturday, December 1, 2012

Obama City and Wakasa Bay

Wakasa Bay, Obama City, Fukui.

Last weekend, in addition to visiting Eiheiji, I traveled to Obama City on the Japan Coast of Fukui prefecture. It seemed easy enough to get there by train, and the information I found about Obama-shi on the Internet made it sound like an interesting destination. For example, Obama is where North Korean agents abducted Japanese citizens 34 years ago. And several centuries ago, Obama was a passing-through point for people traveling between China and Kyoto (Japan’s old capital). It also holds a water carrying festival (Omizuokuri Matsuri) every March that’s been going on for more than 1200 years.

I departed from Fukui station on the Thunderbird Express at around 10 a.m. on Saturday morning, and then transferred at Tsuruga for a JR line to Obama. From Tsuruga to Obama, there’s only local train service and Obama is the 16th stop on the line. The train had only two cars, and the tracks cut through a little-populated countryside, with occasional views of the ocean near the end of the 40-minute trip. The fall foliage made the trip picturesque, though there didn’t seem much worth stopping for.

Obama station is tiny, but it does have a tourist information office inside and offers a variety of maps, some of which are in English. From there, it’s about a 15-minute walk to the bay, but there are some interesting places to visit along the way. One place I stopped at was Fisherman’s Wharf. If the weather had been better I would have taken the Sotomo Scenic Cruise, which leaves from the wharf for what it widely regarded as the Japan Sea’s most scenic tour, but instead I spent more time at the municipal fish market.

As you can see by the painting on one of the market’s walls, the city has embraced Barack Obama––or at least images of him that might bring in customers. In this painting, he’s wearing a traditional conical hat and fisherman’s coat, and holding a package of one of Fukui’s specialties: heshiko (saba that has been pickled in nuka, or rice bran). I have no idea what Obama’s pointing at, but whatever it is he seems as happy as the giant cat behind him.

The fish market itself was smaller than the building might have you guess (though it’s probably much busier and livelier in the early morning), and since winter is crab season there were plenty of crabs on hand. There were plenty of freshly caught fish and shellfish, too, along with fish drying on racks outside.

Once at the bay—or one small corner of it—which was besieged by hawks hungry for fishermen’s throwaways, it was time to fill my belly with some of the seafood I’d seen at the fish market. With this in mind, I headed for a beautiful little restaurant called Hamano Shiki.

For only ¥1150 (less than $14) I ordered fried saba, which came with a small salad, pickled veggies, miso soup, white rice, green tea, and a citrus jelly dessert.

Directly across from the restaurant is Miketsukuni Wakasa Obama Food Cultural Center, a museum devoted to Japanese food culture, and there are numerous displays on the first floor of Japanese food according to season and also by historical period.

Amazingly, the food of old Japan hasn’t changed much over time, so when we eat a traditional Japanese meal we also delve back gustatorily into Japan’s long culinary history.

From there, it was another ten or fifteen minutes by foot to get to the Sanchomachi district of Obama, which is known for its well-preserved homes and buildings dating to medieval times when the area was a red-light district.

Perhaps I missed the turnoff to the main street with all these old houses, but what I found was quite limited and virtually nothing was open. What I saw was interesting to me, but I was able to pass through the area in about 10 minutes. Supposedly there are a few geisha houses here and also restaurants that employ geishas to entertain customers. But I didn’t see anything like this.

There was a freezing rain falling by that point, so I went and found a café where I ordered hot cocoa and sat by an electric heater. At around 4 p.m. I asked the café owner to call a taxi, and from there it was about 15 minutes to Itaya Ryokan, which is set in a quiet cove of Wakasa Bay.

This is the view from my room.

The main building is made of wood and has four stories (beside it is a three-story annex), with nine rooms. The building used to belong to the village headman during the Edo period (1603-1868), and much of its original architecture remains. It also has an Edo-period storehouse and garden, a beachfront, and onsens.

This was the front room across from the registration desk. Big groups have dinner here, and it leads into the inn's spacious garden.

A giant wood carving of bears.

Upon check-in I was served a sweet and salty plum and hot green tea with plum mush at the bottom.

This is the breakfast room. It’s meant to recreate the feeling of being on a boat.

It may look like a jail, but thats just the sliding wooden door at the entry to the room. 

The onsen looks over the bay, where numerous blowfish (fugu) nets have been laid. One of the hot baths had a Jacuzzi, and there is also a sauna behind where I took the picture below. The onsen were open 24 hours, too, and I went back there nice and early on Sunday to watch the sun rise.

Dinner was served in the room, and it was a full course of crab from the Sea of Japan. The appetizer was heshiko, mountain vegetables, crab roe, salted and packed roe, pressed sea bream sushi, and fish cake slices.

After that I tucked into fresh, already cracked-open boiled crab.

Sashimi, including crab sashimi, followed.

Minced crab meat with a fried egg came afterward.

And finally, a crab hotpot with tofu, mushrooms, watercress, and leeks.

With a dessert of red bean and cinnamon jelly.

Somehow, in the morning, I made room for this healthy breakfast.

Before leaving and returning to Fukui, I took advantage of the rare appearance of the sun and walked around the premises. There were numerous cats in the alleys and even around the beach, including this guy in the photo below who complained vociferously as I approached with my camera.

Quite a few people could be seen fishing on the pier to one side of the beach, and in warmer weather there are small rowboats one can use to explore the bay.

For anyone interested in staying at this traditional Japanese inn, Itaya’s website is here: It’s all in Japanese, but the photos are nice!

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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Eiheiji Temple, Fukui

It’s been months, literally, since my last blog post, which was due mainly to an insane work schedule and changes yet again to my area of residence. I’ve been working the equivalent of two jobs since February of this year (and in the last 17 months have moved from Hanoi to Akita, to Mui Ne, back to Akita, to Tokyo, and then to Fukui), but it seems I’ve managed to shuck one gig recently and have a somewhat normal schedule to look forward to. What this means, I hope, is that I can get back to blogging semi-regularly. I’ll detail the past year or so in a future post, but for now I’m going to dive into some recent travel and eating…here in Fukui, Japan, which is in the Hokuriku region of the country and within very reasonable train distance to some of my favorite places: Kyoto (80 minutes away) and Kanazawa (40 minutes away).

With the time of year turning cold and gloomy, it’s nice to turn one’s attention to kouyou, which refers to the tradition of viewing Japan’s rich autumn foliage. This weekend I tried to combine some kouyou viewing with local travel. My first trip was to Eiheiji Temple, which is a 40-minute bus ride (a ¥720-ticket purchased in advance) from Fukui Station (bus stop #1).

The temple is only 10 miles southeast of Fukui, so if you happen to have your own transportation you can probably get there in about 25 minutes. Despite the fact that the temple is one of the most famous tourist destinations in Fukui prefecture, I didn’t expect it to impress me as much as it did. It doesn’t compare to Koya-san, but I was more impressed with Eiheiji than any of the temples I’ve seen in Kyoto and Nara. It doesn’t rank with Izu Shrine in terms of its historic importance, but I think I enjoy Eiheiji even more because of how beautifully it blends in with the natural surroundings.

Eiheiji is important architecturally for that reason, in fact, but even more important is its designation as the head temple of the Soto Zen sect, which was founded in 1244 by Dogen Zenji. The temple premises cover nearly 100,000 square meters, and the grounds are filled with various types of ancient pines, Japanese maples, gingkoes, cryptomeria cedars, and other blazingly-leafed trees.

Another important feature of the temple is its function as a training ground for more than 200 priests. One sees young priests, clad in black robes and with their heads shaved, walking and working in the temple. With advanced reservations, you can spend the night here for what is supposedly quite rigorous zazen training. I call tell you without hesitation that I never considered doing this. At least not after discovering how bitterly cold mornings can be in poorly heated abodes like my current apartment and, I’m guessing, ancient Japanese temples that offer training in asceticism.

The main temple is composed of several tiers that climb up the mountain, and as it climbs, visitors must climb, too.

Some of the stairs seemed never-ending, and the corridors that connected them were almost mazelike in their intricacy.

In a way it was lucky that Fukui’s ceaseless rain at this time of year let up long enough for me to visit Eiheiji. The rain deepened the colors of the already-rich foliage, as well as the temple’s wooden construction and also the stone walkways.

Rain hung for two or three hours off of branches and leaves like dewdrops. It probably also thinned out the crowds, though I by no means had the temple to myself.

After two or three hours here it was time for lunch, and, as visitors are bound to notice on the drive to the temple, the surrounding area, called Echizen, is famous for its soba (buckwheat noodles). Echizen is a large area that is associated most of all, probably, with crabs—one single Echizen male crab will throw you back at least ¥10,000 (over $120)—and secondly with soba. After walking a couple minutes down the mist-shrouded mountain road, and passing some of the biggest dango (grilled mochi dumpling) I’ve ever seen, I settled for a three-soba set lunch.

The soba varieties included Echizen soba (plain soba), tororo soba (grated yam soba), and tempura soba. The meal came with miso soup, pickled onion bulbs, and free tea and cost ¥800 (less than $10).

Although I’m not a fan of the cold (I’ve spent years in hot places and, somewhat idiotically, still don’t own winter clothes), I’m looking forward to coming back to Eiheiji after a snowfall to see how winter changes the temple and its relationship to these forested mountains.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Recap of Short Return to Vietnam

It’s hard to believe that so much time has passed since my last blog post. I intended to take a short break, but it seems my break has last more than four months! Twitter and Twitpic is much less time-consuming, especially now that I’m back in Japan and working a lot.

At the end of October last year I decided to leave Japan because my job in Akita required far more hours (60-70/week) than were specified in my contract (40-45/week). It was a difficult choice to make, though I knew I’d try to come back at some point. Where did I choose to go? As I’ve done numerous times in the past, I returned to Vietnam, which has always been a great safety net for me.

I intended to live in Saigon for a while, as I thought I’d lined up work and a place to live in District 2. Unfortunately, the job fell through and my prospective landlord sold me a false bill of goods. Rather than move into the apartment I’d placed a $740 deposit on, I backed out immediately after entering the place and finding it completely filled with mud, rotting food, and different furnishings than what I’d been led to believe came with the place. I lost the money and had to start my apartment search all over, but then an old Vietnamese-American friend, and ex-landlord, suggested that I rent his villa in Mui Ne, a beach resort 5 hours north of Saigon. He offered me an incredibly affordable rate with the condition that I volunteer to teach English to the groundskeepers at the private complex where his villa was. Having been to Mui Ne many times in the past, and having seen his villa several times, too, I readily agreed. It made the loss of my deposit, as well as the Vietnamese post office’s confiscation of three boxes of personal belongings that I’d mailed from Akita in October (and still haven’t gotten back as of this writing), easier to swallow.

Ah, Vietnam. There’s always something you force me to deal with…

Near the entrance to the complex of villas where I lived in Mui Ne.

The lane where I lived. And no, that's not my shiny SUV.

I hadn’t been to Mui Ne since January 2009, and in the intervening 33 months I couldn’t believe how much had changed. Not only were there far more hotels and restaurants, but the number of Russian tourists had exploded. I’d say that almost 90% of the tourists I came across in Mui Ne were from Russia.

The place where I lived was set off from the main strip, though by motorbike it only took me a few minutes to get there. I would go into town every day for meals, or for coffee, or to shop for fruit or other small items, or to walk along the beach. I didn’t take my camera with me very often, which explains why there’s not a great deal of variety among these photos.

The front gate to the villa where I lived. The scaffolding in front was for the people weatherproofing the shutters.

Second floor guestroom where I stayed.

One of the great things about Mui Ne is that it’s relatively quiet and the traffic is manageable. It used to be quieter and had even less traffic, but despite its rapid development it remains a pleasant break from city life. And where I stayed was incredibly peaceful…most of the time.

When I first arrived at the complex, which has about 120 villas, only about five of them had anyone living or staying in them. This situation, which was great, lasted from November 12th, when I arrived, until December 1st, when the place started to get overrun by Russian tourists. They were generally nice, but they also liked to drink—all day and night, it seemed. There was a group of 30 that stayed for two weeks, and when the sun went down they liked to race their motorbikes around the complex, go swimming (and shouting a lot) in the middle of the night, and break things—which one often came across in the morning, usually around the pool area.

Large kitchen that I mostly used to brew coffee. A favorite place for frogs to gather, though I never figured out why.

Living room full of patio furniture (foreground) waiting to be weatherproofed.
Photo of the villa from the fence in the back yard.

This is the distance between my back yard and the complex's pool area.

25-meter pool in background, and a shorter, shallower pool connected to it.

There were also tennis courts...
And a badminton court...
And a cafe with pool tables at the far end...
One of the many frogs I constantly saw inside and outside my place.

View from my bedroom window as evening approached.

I had access to a motorbike (and two bicycles), which was bigger than any two-wheeler I’d ridden before, and which seemed to be missing a top gear—a bad thing when locals followed me home up the unlit road at night.

My motorbike on scrub grass beside the ocean. That scrub grass is now pavement, by the way.
My Bonus motorbike...
Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street, in Mui Ne. Lazy morning with little traffic to deal with.
I have memories of the food in Mui Ne being better than it was during my stay this time, though I can’t complain about the greater range of options. There were far more street food options in Phan Thiet, about a 15-minute motorbike away, but in Mui Ne there wasn’t more much than carts selling sandwiches, boiled corn, and steamed buns, and of course fruit, which was everywhere.

One of my favorite places to eat was Hoa Vien, a Vietnamese-Czech brewery whose restaurant specialized in seafood. (Of course, most places in Mui Ne specialize in seafood.)

Hoa Vien's outdoor seating area and infinity pool beside the sea.
One item that Hoa Vien offers, which I’d never had before, was goi ca suot.

Goi ca suot is a dish of small, half-translucent sardines mixed with a peanut-red chili sauce and served with various herbs and rice paper embedded with sesame seeds. A sweet, peanut-based sauce is provided for dipping. This was one of the cheaper items on the menu (less than $5), and with an order of boiled or stir-fried veggies it easily serves two people.

Another place that served incredibly cheap, always satisfying food was Lam Tong.

Lam Tong is NOT fancy.
Despite the shoddy service—perhaps the worst in Vietnam—but then what do you expect from a group of teenage boys who would surely rather be out having fun with their friends—I kept coming back here.

But their food is tasty and insanely cheap. This is a huge tomato salad, dish of rice, and lemongrass-and-chili-fried barracuda on sliced cucumbers. Total cost: about $2.

It’s a popular place and can get crowded at night, but if you come at the right time you can enjoy your food with an unimpeded view of the ocean.

The beach from Lam Tong restaurant.

There are surprisingly few cafes in Mui Ne, especially when considering how many cafes one finds pretty much everywhere in Vietnam. Close to Lam Tong was a place called Sankara. There’s a little bit of everything here, including yoga classes, a indoor bar and lounge, an oceanside bar-café, a swimming pool, and open-yurt-like sitting areas.

Passionfruit shake at Sankara.

The coffee here is about $2 per glass, but it’s worth it for the ambience.

Yoga classes are held on the second floor of the main building, under the white tarp.

I used to go to the oceanside restaurant at Victoria Resort most mornings to get my writing done, but once one of the young cooks working there decided that I was to be his best friend and job-hunting helper, I stopped going. The resort is one of the oldest ones in Mui Ne, and also one of the most charming. The lounge area between the restaurant and pool is spectacular in the evening as the sun is going down.

Phan Thiet is worth exploring if you find yourself getting bored with Mui Ne’s limited options. There’s a lot to see, if not a lot to do. Mui Ne is an old fishing village, and Phan Thiet is famous for the fish sauce it produces.

Driving from Mui Ne into Phan Thiet, one comes across plenty of evidence of fishing’s importance to the local people.

I spent three months in Mui Ne before deciding to come back to Japan. I was ready to leave after three months, mostly because I got bored being there on my own, but now that I’m in Snow Country in northern Japan and freezing my tush off, I definitely miss Mui Ne. I’m already making plans to go back, though perhaps not for such a long stay next time.

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